Faith Matters: Making new music for our time

  • Singer and songwriter Jim Scott on Sunday at the Bernardston Unitarian Church. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Singer and songwriter Jim Scott on Sunday at the Bernardston Unitarian Church. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Singer and songwriter Jim Scott on Sunday at the Bernardston Unitarian Church. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Singer and songwriter Jim Scott on Sunday at the Bernardston Unitarian Church. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Composer and UU speaker
Published: 5/24/2019 11:25:57 AM

(Each Saturday, a faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email

When asked if I might write something on the intersection of folk music and church music, I find the first question to be, “What is folk music?” As a songwriter who feels under the influences of classical music and jazz, I wonder where I fit in the folk world. I do primarily play the guitar, so I guess that’s folk music, for some.

So after that disclaimer, I do feel that I’m as part of a movement across many denominations to bring a more contemporary music to church celebrations. With jazz, gospel and ethnic rhythms, I actually consider it to be part of my work to push the envelope and come up with something new in my songs and choral pieces. I also have become a collector of songs, and created an anthology of 110 songs of earth and peace called the “Earth and Spirit Songbook.” I’ll add I’ve just gotten a grant to help me work on a sequel book. So — a call to writers of songs of earth, peace, justice, spirit, etc.: I’m open to submissions.

As churches desire to be more diverse, the music of many cultures takes us beyond the intellectual to an experiential connection, an experience of what life is like in that world. The beauty and power of art, after all, is that it enables us to see someone else’s perspective (even if we don’t agree with it) and see humanity.

I heard a great gospel singer say, “Church is always evolving to keep up with the current, contemporary culture around it.” With a bit of a delay, for some of us, I might qualify that statement. Particularly in New England with our buildings on the historical register, perhaps the King James version of music still keeps an upper hand in propriety for some. But the folks who want church to “be just like it always was” give way to another generation. And the music that teens have on their hand-held devices comes from all over the world.

In many African-American churches, music is sung without looking to a written hymnal. A Ugandan church service I recently attended in the Boston area had no written music, everyone singing by ear. This oral tradition is certainly folk music, and the songs inevitably evolve as well. A song leader, maybe “lining out” the lyrics, feeding the congregation the next line, is also a well established tradition.

The Gospel, contemporary, and even country styles that have informed many churches for the last century have brought our Puritan history of no involvement of the body in the music (no boogey-ing) to surrender. That wicked “syncopated” music that early 20th-century preachers warned us would “cause young women to lose their virginity” is now pretty much a staple in our spiritual getting down.

But here’s my caveat: I love those great masterworks of the Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc. choral tradition. What happens to all that? I think that if we could talk to J. S. Bach today, he’d say, “I’m flattered that you still like my music, but where is your music? We were rebelling against the Catholic Church. What’s your rebellion? I collected new words from poets around me, and even wrote my own, for a new service every week, for years. We weren’t singing the same stuff we’d sung a century ago, we reinvented it, made new music, for new instruments, in a new style.”

So my mission (I won’t say rebellion) is to make a new music for our time. I don’t know what to call it, but what I want is everyone’s involvement, singing together, raising up the issues that are critical to our morality and to sustainability on this little Earth. That’s my spirituality that I try to put in my music, and my life.

Jim Scott is a composer, guitarist and singer whose songs are in the Unitarian Universalist hymnbooks, but he is ready to play for anyone. He has degrees in music from Eastman School and Berklee College of Music. A member of the Paul Winter Consort and co-composer of their “Missa Gaia/Earth Mass,” he’s recorded and published a wide variety of choral music. He lives in Shrewsbury.


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